Background for Saul of Tarsus

28 Feb

We aren’t certain why Paul came to be born in the capital city of Cilicia, but it may have been that his ancestors were among those that Antiochus IV resettled from Galilee cir. 171 BCE with the promise of immediate citizenship there. The Syrian rulers often colonized recently conquered territories with their own citizens in order to solidify their authority there. Jewish citizens were often seen as a preferred group for colonization, perhaps because they also had such strong religious allegiance to the Seleucid province of Judea as well. Paul’s father was a Pharisee and probably a master tentmaker living in Tarsus. “The black tents of Tarsus were used by caravans, nomads, and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria.”[1]

As a boy, Paul would have been taught in a Jewish school attached to one of the local synagogues in his home city. Later Paul claimed that he was a citizen of Tarsus, which implies he was from a wealthy family. It seems that about 15 BC civic reforms were introduced in Tarsus which permitted only households of considerable fortune and property to hold the rank of citizen. Therefore, any citizen of the poorer classes would have been deprived of their citizenship status and committed to the rank of resident.[2] No doubt, because his father was a Pharisee and of considerable wealth, Paul was sent to Jerusalem for his education for about 5 to 6 years or between the ages of 13 and 19.

Paul tells us that he learned at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). It was this same Gamaliel that Luke says saved the lives of Peter and John in Acts 5:34-40, for the Sadducees wanted to kill them (Acts 5:33). The sect of the Pharisees was divided into two groups: the Hillelites, who followed Hillel and a more lenient interpretation of the Law; and the Shammaites, who followed Shammai and advocated a very strict approach of interpreting the Law. Many scholars believe Gamaliel was a member of the Hillel school and note Acts 5:34-40 as logical proof. Nevertheless, there are a few scholars who would take issue with this idea, and among them would be Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner:

The Gamiliel-corpus does not relate him to Hillel, either as a son or successor. …Gamaliel-traditions leave the man in a rather shadowy, vague state, by contrast to the stories told about Hillel. …If Gamiliel I was a member of the House of Hillel, the traditions never reflect it (pp. 57-58)[3]

Paul does say that he lived as a Pharisee, after the strictest sect of Judaism. If we take Paul’s words literally, then we must conclude he was a Shammaite, and not a Hillelite as is usually supposed. This would also explain his tireless zeal to persecute, even to the death, the Hellenist believers who dared to ‘blaspheme’ the Law and the Temple of God (Acts 6:15).

After his education in Jerusalem, Paul would have been expected to return to Tarsus and learn the trade of his father, a Pharisee, because it was expected of every Pharisee who was a rabbi or teacher of the word of God to support himself. The ideal was for a teacher of the Law not exact a fee for his service. Therefore, Paul returned to his home in Tarsus and learned the trade of tent-making.

After several years working with his father, Paul would have returned to Jerusalem to involve himself in teaching the Jews those things that concern the traditions of their fathers. He was exceedingly zealous in his work, and his reputation and responsibility continued to advance quicker than his peers (Galatians 1:14). Was Paul present in Jerusalem during the public life of Jesus? This is difficult to say. Some would conclude that he was not, simply because Paul never mentions it. However, I have often wondered about Mark’s passage in Mark 12:28-34. This would have been Peter’s Gospel. He may have known about Paul’s early meeting with the Lord (Galatians 1:18), if, indeed, that were true. Whether this is true or not, we do know that Paul was in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are formerly introduced to him as an enemy of the faith, approving Stephen’s death. Although believers in the Way were persecuted prior to Stephen’s death, Stephen was the first believer to die in the name of Christ. I think his death has particular significance and have blogged about this HERE, HERE and HERE.

Paul continued to persecute the more liberal Hellenist believers in the Way, bringing them to the Jerusalem council for punishment and sometimes death.

In future posts I hope to continue blogging about Paul, because his life and the book of Acts have come to be somewhat of a passion of mine lately. Nevertheless, I do intend to continue to blog about other matters concerning Jesus, the Gospel and Christianity in general, but Paul, his letters and Acts are of particular interest to me at this time, so, for those who are also interested in such things, look for more blogs like this one in the future.

[1] The Apostle: A Life of Paul by John Pollock; p.15

[2] Ibid.

[3] Citation from: The Psychology of Paul; by James R. Beck; p.40

1 Comment

Posted by on February 28, 2011 in New Testament History, Paul, Religion


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One response to “Background for Saul of Tarsus

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